When wealth is passed off as
merit, bad luck is seen as bad character. This is how ideologues justify
punishing the sick and the poor. But poverty is neither a crime nor a character
flaw. Stigmatize those who let people die, not those who struggle to live.
-Sarah Kendzior, journalist and
I am a contributor to A.Word.A.Day and, along with their daily email to my inbox, they include a quote from someone worth quoting whose birthday shares the date. I like to keep track of quotes that are meaningful to me and today’s choice meets that criteria in spades.
I look people up. It’s a quirk of mine, but I like to know
something about those people, organizations and media outlets I happen to write
According to Wikipedia, Sarah has
written for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Marie Claire, The
Boston Globe and other outlets. The Irish Times asserted that
Kendzior "has become a must-follow journalist."
I hope never to be accused
of going against the opinion of the Irish Times.
But the quote fascinates me and part of the reason is no
doubt that we love to see our personal opinions confirmed in print.
We Americans are in absolute awe of
both wealth and celebrity. But Sarah makes the point that when we see those
circumstances as worthy or deserving (merit), then by comparison poverty and
bad luck become the natural condition of losers.
If you are Jeff Bezos, you’re a god,
but if you’re homeless and begging, it’s your own fault and you’re a bum. As a
society, we by-and-large agree with that. And by-and-large, we are dead wrong.
Who among us has ever actually sat down next to a homeless
person and listened to their story? Certainly not I.
Thirty million American families
are said to be one minor catastrophe from bankruptcy—an uninsured illness or
loss of a job. The slide into poverty is a slippery slope, yet hardly a crime
and, if its' seen as a character flaw, then a very major portion of our nation
shares that flaw.
Earthquakes are not the only phenomenon that are speculated
upon as they become seriously overdue. Pressures have been building for forty
years on the tectonic plate that is economic disparity.
When that long overdue plate slips,
the resulting institutional collapse that follows may expose what is truly
criminal and what is merely a character flaw. Bezos, Gates and the Walton
family are surely not criminals, nor do they lack character in the common
understanding. They played by the rules.
It’s the game that has been criminally
changed. The further criminal act was to blame the victims for the robbery,
for a robbery it was by any definition.
“Stigmatize those who let people die, not those who
struggle to live.”
We have chosen to glorify
those who let people die. We have allowed the prisons and ghettos and
homeless and unprotected to overwhelm our society because they are not us—but
too close for comfort. Rather than hold out a hand to those who have been left
behind, we edge away from them as though their poverty and anguish might be
I was born in the middle of the Great Depression and have
little memory of it, other than my father’s comment that “people in those
circumstances were more kind to one another than I have ever seen them since.”
I don’t know where our gradual loss
of kindness will take us, nor do I know what circumstances the present pandemic
will leave behind. But I know we will be changed.
Sarah Kendzior may have, in a mere
47 words, accurately explained the circumstances of the times, as well as a
prescription for the future.